If the Cubs are going to do this thing they’ve spent 108 years trying to get done, maybe this is the only way it’s going to happen.
The guy who screws up on the bases winds up stealing home instead of getting picked off. The closer the Cubs spent their top draft pick to acquire for these moments blows another save when he gets pressed into eighth-inning duty again.
And then the catcher who swore he thought the club was going to release him when he lost his starting job to a rookie comes off the bench for a grand slam in the bottom of the eighth inning.
And just like that, the Cubs beat the Dodgers 8-4 in the opener of the National League Championship Series on Saturday night at quaking Wrigley Field.
“Feels awesome, “ said Miguel Montero, who watched right-hander Joe Blanton walk pinch-hitter Chris Coghlan intentionally to load the bases ahead of him in the eighth with the score tied.
“I kind of looked in a couple times and didn’t see the [Dodgers] manager coming out,” said the lefty hitter waiting for a lefty reliever to enter. “And I said, `awesome.’ I was ready to hit. I was more than happy to get that at-bat with the bases loaded.”
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said he had Blanton walk Coghlan because he wanted to get closer Aroldis Chapman – who finished the eighth – out of the game. And when Montero pinch-hit for Chapman, he liked the matchup instead of the alternatives Maddon might have had in, perhaps, Willson Contreras.
Two strikes later, Montero launched what proved to be the game-winner to the back of the right-field bleachers. And then Dexter Fowler added on with another homer on the next pitch for the final score.
“That’s a lot of cat-and-mouse that inning,” Cubs catcher David Ross said.
“Ten out of 10 times I would take Joe Blanton against Montero,” Roberts said. “And he took a good swing on an 0-2 pitch. That’s baseball.”
Montero: “That was a great sensation.”
It was a sensation the Cubs didn’t experience at all in their NLCS appearance last year, with the Mets sweeping them in four games.
“Winning the first game is huge,” said Kris Bryant, who doubled twice in the game, including the leadoff hit in the eighth. “Especially given what we did last year in the NLCS, winning a game feels great. But always winning the first game of s series, I don’t know if it takes some of the air out of how they’re feeling, but we certainly feel great.”
It was the second epic finish for the Cubs in as many playoff games, having clinched their NLDS series win with a four-run ninth inning in San Francisco in Tuesday’s Game 4.
“I don’t think we’ve had games like that all year,” Bryant said. “But it seems there’s something about the playoffs. You see things you don’t see usually.
“Sure they’re stressful at times. Your heart beats a little quicker, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Until the Cubs’ five-run outburst, it looked like manager Joe Maddon’s postseason habit of bringing his closer in with six outs to go might cost the Cubs a victory, like it did in a 13-inning loss to the Giants Monday night.
After Mike Montgomery allowed a leadoff single to Andrew Toles, Maddon went to Pedro Strop, who walked Howie Kendrick and gave up an infield single to Justin Turner to load the bases.
On came Chapman.
Out went the lead.
After strikeouts of Corey Seager and Yasiel Puig, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez drilled a two-run single through the box and up the middle to tie the game.
It was the second time this postseason a left-handed hitter had squared up a fastball from the lefty Chapman, who inexplicably did not use his slider in those at-bats (Conor Gillaspie with the big double for the Giants off him).
“We had no choice. I did not want to do that again,” Maddon said of bringing Chapman in with men on and six outs to go. “But give Chappy credit for keeping it at two. You do not want to [give them] the lead right there. When you’ve given up two runs to tie the ballgame, the tendency is maybe the mental letdown. But he did not permit that to happen.”
Said Ross: “The key for us was to keep it tied. Once we knew we’re going in tied, we’re fine.”
Until the bullpen carousel started up in the late innings, it looked like the Javy Baez Show for the second playoff series in a row.
The offensive and defensive hero of the Cubs’ NLDS elimination of the Giants stepped to the plate for the first time Saturday, after Jason Heyward led off the second with a triple, to the chants from 43,000 fans of “Ja-vy!” “Ja-vy!”
He didn’t disappoint on that one, turning a popup hit to shallow left-center into a double by breaking out of the box like he didn’t do at home in either of the first two games of the last series.
But the big play came after he advanced to third on a wild pitch and, with the squeeze play on, wound up with the Cubs’ first postseason steal of home since 1907.
Jon Lester pulled the bat back on the bunt, and with Baez well down the line, catcher Carlos Ruiz threw to third –as Baez simultaneously broke for the plate. He slid just under the ensuing throw back to the plate.
“You’ve got to have some cajones to pull that off,” Ross said.
That gave the Cubs a 3-0 lead.
They already had scored quickly in the first on Fowler’s leadoff single and Bryant’s ensuing RBI double.
Lester extended his home streak of quality starts to 17 – and his string of postseason shutdown pitching to 18 innings this month with six more against the Dodgers.
The only run he allowed came on a two-out, pinch-hit home run by Andre Ethier in the fifth, a fly to left that carried on the outbound wind over the left-center wall to cut the Cubs lead to 3-1.
Lester got help from a pair of diving catches from center fielder Dexter Fowler in the third and fourth.
And he sidestepped a run in the second thanks to Dodger third base coach Chris Woodward’s overestimation of Gonzalez’ sportswriter-like foot speed.
After a leadoff single by Gonzalez and one-out walk by Hernandez, the pitcher Maeda hit a soft ground single to left with two out. As Ben Zobrist scooped up the ball, Woodward waved home Gonzalez, who was thrown out easily at the plate to end the inning.
Maddon said he didn’t think Lester was quite as sharp as he was in his Game 1 start in the NLDS (eight scoreless innings), which was part of the reasoning behind his criticized move to pinch hit for Lester with two out in the bottom of the sixth and Baez in second.
“There was a chance to put add-on runs in that particular moment,” Maddon said. “You had Gonzalez, and then Ruiz had two good at-bats against him. Hernandez has already had good at-bats at him. So it was an opportunity to get Ruiz out of the game, which eventually turned into [Yasmani] Grandal.
“So you’ve got to look at the whole big picture. All those things were part of it. If Jon was on top of his game, I may not have done it, but I didn’t think he had his best stuff tonight.”